Way up in Manhattan, so far north that it’s nearly the Bronx, is Washington Heights. You take the A or the 1 train to 181 Street to find this primarily Hispanic neighbourhood that’s not on any tourist radar. In the Heights shows the day-to-day struggles and celebrations of a group of residents on one block far removed from downtown prosperity with a soundtrack of salsa, hip-hop and poppy musical theatre.
The songs are the most innovative aspect of this mostly-sung musical with a stellar cast, but the book is rather sparse and the large cast of characters means it’s a cracking ensemble performance with frustratingly little development for any one character. The book and lyrics rely on stereotypes of Latino immigrants in New York City, though it both fulfills and destroys them within the diverse array of characters. The story feels rather tenuously squeezed around the songs with the dialogue serving as a plot point connector; most, of the scenes aren’t substantial enough to stand on their own. But, going back to the music, the songs make up the bulk of this musical and create a fabulous atmosphere complimented by excellent design. The Latin and hip-hop tunes are the best and most original, resulting in a fun evening and a memorable soundtrack.
This production is the same one that received numerous accolades and award nominations last year at Southwark Playhouse, and deservedly so. The Kings Cross Theatre suits this show well, with a wide traverse stage and audiences on either side, creating intimacy and suiting Drew McOnie’s circular, street party choreography. There are still design relics from The Railway Children, but Takis’ urban set and Gabriella Slade’s bright, revealing costumes pull the focus onto this completely contrasting world. With the performances practically in the laps of the front rows, it’s hard not to get up and dance. Some people do during the curtain call.
It’s not all a party, though. Nina (Lily Frazer), the first of the neighbourhood to go to university, has dropped out after her first year. Her father Kevin (David Bedella) hates her boyfriend Benny (Joe Aaron Reid) and is furious about Nina’s deceitful behaviour. Corner shop (or “bodega” in NYC lingo) owner Usnavi (Sam Mackay) and salon owner Daniela (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) are getting priced out due to rising rents. Others came here for a better life only to find themselves cleaning houses and pigeonholed by poverty. The joy in this show comes in the characters’ ability to party and find solace in each other in the face of adversity – a powerful message for modern times.
I wanted to know more about these characters, though. This is a “slice of life” show that tries to fit in a lot of big personalities and backstories in a short amount of time, so the main characters and their tales have little space to grow. The storyline feels rushed and the ending, though a happy resolution, is a bit too “musical theatre twee” for a world that’s poor and gritty, albeit one soaked with colour and excellent music. It’s still possible to be pulled into this little stretch of Washington Heights in the height of summer and to want to dance the night away to this extraordinary blend of Latino, rap and musical theatre.
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